The Canary in the Coalmine

still alive… but barely

There is no question but that we have ‘dumbed down’ TV news. But has TV news ‘dumbed down’ society, or is TV news simply chasing a dumber public?

For many years, I taught at New York University, and over those years I was increasingly astonished at how ill-educated my NYU students were. Not that they were stupid; just incredibly uneducated. Many could not differentiate between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. Most placed the American Civil War at anywhere from 1810 to 1920; the population of the US at anywhere from 2 million to a billion; the distance from NY to LA at anywhere from 800 miles to 25,000. And there was worse. The more shocking fact was, that when confronted with their appalling lack of basic knowledge, they simply did not care. “I can look it up if I want to know” was their most popular answer. And indeed, in a world of Google, this proves to be true.

In that same period, we have all watched TV news deteriorate at the same rate. Issues such as the Middle East or the economy are now simply far too complex to explain in depth, and so we are reduced to a simplistic ‘good guy, bad guy’ analysis which more often than not misses the point entirely. It leaves us with what Neil Postman used to call ‘the illusion of knowledge’, which can be far more dangerous than no knowledge at all. (ie, Saddam is Hitler… sort of). Why did this happen? Did TV news debase the intelligence of the Average American, or did TV news simply follow their audience into the abyss?

This question has been raised of late in an online discussion amongst members of my class at the J-School at Columbia. And here is an interesting theory that has arisen from this: When I was a child, most of my public school teachers were excellent. They were excellent because they had come of age in an era when women had two career choices: teacher or nurse. And because the options open to ‘career women’ were so limited, schools could get away with paying their female teachers next to nothing. In the 1970s and 80s, options for women (thankfully) opened. I am old enough to remember when a woman going to Harvard Law School still merited an article in our local newspaper.

Now, bright and aggressive women headed off to become lawyers, doctors and CEOs. At that point, schools should have vastly escalated their salaries. If we wanted to keep the best and the brightest teaching our children, it would have meant offering salaries commensurate with law firms (ie, $150K a year). And why not? But schools did not. Instead, they kept their salaries as low as they had always been. And so, with a few very dedicated individuals who were willing to forego incomes to fulfill their teaching ambition, the quality of teachers collapsed. As did, I think, the general quality of education.

Today’s students (based on my own anecdotal decade at NYU) have not been educated; and for the most part, don’t even seem to know what an education is. This is now the audience for TV news – limited attention span, limited background, limited education. TV news has always chased ratings, and so is it any surprise that in an effort to garner eyeballs on the screen, news has gravitated to Britney Spears? We will pay a price for this.

As the Roman Empire collapsed in upon itself (some say for lead in the drinking water), future historians may look to this debasement of education as the root cause of the end of the American Empire.

TV News is a kind of canary in the coal mine. It tells us what is happening in our culture. And TV news, like our culture, is not looking well.


10 responses to “The Canary in the Coalmine

  1. Pingback: Britney Spears » The Canary in the Coalmine

  2. It is true…. that in the days of old…
    We had to rely on our brains to recall information. Today, most American kids have access to the internet. So the internet has become the “hard drive” that stores and provides facts and figures when needed.

    Facts and figures can be quickly accessed now via the internet.

    It is things like the history, the morals, the ethics, the thoughts and reasoning…. that needs to be taught and learned.

    Because computers provide calculators, wikipedia, and other reference materials.

    It is a fascinating time.

  3. Hmmm.

    “An informed”, citizenry is key to any democracy. Unfortunately, such has seldom been the case in America or elsewhere. In fact, this was one of the key arguments about not allowing African Americans or Women suffrage – they thought elections would get dumbed down. Not true of course, America has always been full of people not engaged in current affairs or politics. RIght or wrong, they simply see no need.

    Look. As adults, we seldom learn anything for the mere sake of learning it. That includes world events. And as they say, all politics are local politics – meaning, don’t ask me to vote for you unless there’s something about me that’s in your message.

    And finally, about teachers. I think sallaries might be an issue in some states, but in my home state of CT, we pay teachers more than anyone. The money doesn’t seem to be the issue – its the unions. These unions fight any attempt to fire an incompetent teacher, oppose any inovation or application of standard, and so on. Want better education? Than make the system accountable.

    Just some thoughts.


  4. The flip side is what happens when that hard drive becomes unavailable for any extended period of time? Organically learned information is always available compared to cyber learned information (no Internet, no information access).

    Fascinating yes, but also somewhat disturbing that todays youth has become complacent in the act of learning. The same is already taking place with this generations with dwindling numbers purposefully reading books. Many prefer to lose themselves in cyberspace instead of participating in reality (close intimate friendships, pursuing personal growth, developing personal character and integrity, etc).

    Then again, the philosophical debate could begin on what is reality…

  5. I found myself reading your blog for the first time today thanks to one of your ex NYU students (hopefully from the more informed end of the spectrum) and right after reading your post found myself checking the blog of a journalist friend who seemed to be so much on the same page that I’ve decided to link you both up by commenting on both your pages with links to the other.

    Here’s my invitation for you to find an ally:

    …or at least watch the video she posted today, which also echos your post:

  6. When Henry Ford starting mass producing cars it created total paradigm shifts across several industries — oil, railroad, transportation, government building roads……

    Education has to catch up with information. The real problem is how teachers are being trained, and having thousands of pulic schools full of teachers who are great at traditional teaching but have not necessarily figured out how to integrate technology. They’re trying.

  7. It feels like Ideocracy is here already. Jane Jacobs said Dark Ages occur when societies forget how to do important things such as raise and educate their children – Have we replaced education with credentialisation?

  8. Has the author ever worked in the business or is it all from a teaching perspective?

  9. Hi Bob
    Yes, I have spent the past 20 years in the TV and news business. You can read my resume at

  10. I understand your agony. I have to talk with PhDs and postdocs and such other luminaries on a daily basis, who are dumb as pieces of wood. Each time I talk to them, I feel like killing myself. They know nothing about anything, be it Math, Science, History, Literature, Culture…you name it. Of course, they know about Fashion and Hollywood movies. But that’s it. 99.9% of the global population is so dumb that every person, who reads and thinks, should be summarily executed.

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